When Pokemon Go was announced last year, it perhaps wasn't really the Pokemon game we were all sitting around waiting to be announced (which if you had asked any of us at the time, was 100% going to be a Pokemon Z style game to follow on from X and Y). Now, after nearly a year of not really explaining all that much about what the game would actually be like, millions of players have gotten the chance to experience it for themselves first hand for the past week (mostly illicitly so far thanks to a frustratingly slow global roll out).
Does Pokemon Go fulfil its lofty promises? Or should it just Pokemon Go Away?
Its success is definitely in no question. For the first time in about 15 years, everyone is talking about Pokemon again and it's already the most successful mobile game ever released in the US and has surpassed install numbers of LinkedIn and Tinder - with even Twitter firmly in its sights. $14million has already been generated in just one week from a 'free' game - all indicating that one way or another, The Pokemon Company has gotten it right.
To leave it there, though, would be a disservice to both critical thought and to those making the game, because regardless of its success in its current form, Pokemon Go is far from a success of User Interface/Experience design, fully featured gameplay or of being respectably bug free.
We'll not dwell too much on the state of the server situation - which has at least been improving even as the delayed roll out has worn on - but it does highlight perhaps an ignorance of the value of the Pokemon IP on Niantic's part to have not expected such an immediate response upon launch. The global roll out itself has not been much of a success story, either and is hampered further by a somewhat King Canute-like response to the ease with which those countries can access the game anyway by downloading the Android APK file and insisting that the sea of interest simply damned-well wait until they feel good and ready for it to sweep in at last.
The Pokemon Nearby feature is the topic of many Internet posts in how it actually works - most of which are entirely contradictory...
In terms of UI/UX, the app is a bit of a disaster. The Internet is already full of attempts, corrections and new attempts to try and understand the interface because it's neither intuitive enough nor prefaced with an adequate introduction to actually grok what it wants on your own. Key case in point being the 'nearby Pokemon' tab, which has seen multiple 'hot tip' posts across the Web, almost all of them contradicting one another in how it actually works. Other massive frustrations include:
So much of the game is a mystery up front until you try something, or read something online, and the intended result finally happens. This is not how good UX works and it's a bit of a shock to see a game so heavily invested in by Nintendo and using one of their biggest IPs come out in such a state - which absolutely wouldn't happen if it were a Nintendo-published game.
- A lack of intuitiveness when it comes to stuff like that first time you try and use an incense - and the item simply dances on screen until you work out it wants you to tap it again - or, in fact, what an incense actually does as the game does nothing by itself to tell you of the fact that it will make a Pokemon spawn before you every 5 minutes.
- The first attempt at defeating a Gym, where literally none of it is explained in-game, including how to actually participate in the battle; what the blue markers under your Pokemon's second move actually mean; or the fact that defeating a gym with multiple Pokemon in it once will knock one of those Pokemon out of the gym, requiring you/other team members to defeat it enough times to remove all Pokemon to claim it yourself.
- How to use a Pokestop for the first time, which you'll basically find out simply by thumbing at the screen like a moron until something happens.
- The fact that the screen must remain on and the app open for both Pokemon to spawn AND for eggs to count your distance travelled, which contributes to the other major issue with the game - the fact that it will completely empty your battery.
All these points will frustrate you at first, but once you get used to them they'll become less of an issue. It doesn't absolve the lack of attention to detail or ignorance of the user experience, but it does at least mean it isn't a deal breaker.
Somewhat of larger significance, though, is the general lack of features that the game really should have. Even Niantic in a recent interview about the game said that trading Pokemon was definitely coming to the app in a future update because it's such a core part of the Pokemon series. Just, apparently not core enough to have actually been in the consumer-released version of the app... The reason for this lack of features is pretty obvious, though. Its name is Ingress. The game that gave life to Niantic after being an initial experiment within Google weighs heavily over Pokemon Go - not least because at this stage, in this released version, Go is simply the minimum viable product after the basic process of reskinning Ingress into a Pokemon flavour.
The original Pokemon Go trailer, which... somewhat embellishes reality
Another noose around their neck from its origins as Ingress is that all the Pokestop and Gym data - and seemingly the data for where Pokemon are likely to spawn - is based entirely off of the data that Ingress players submitted as locations for portals and as such focuses primarily on the main city areas where Ingress found its popularity. For those of us not living in the those areas, the amount of Pokestops, Gyms and even Pokemon to encounter are all pretty low and have a detrimental impact on playing the game. It also leads to a somewhat amusing contradiction where Pokemon are primarily found in heavily urban areas, while being extremely sparse out in the open country. Niantic are now accepting suggestions for new Pokestop and Gym locations, but this is not a problem that can be solved quickly and in the meantime it leaves a lot of players in worse positions than others simply by where they live. It's an unfortunate consequence of being a game so closely tied to where you are in the real world, but you can't help but feel that it could have been mitigated against somewhat by focusing more on logical algorithms of the Google Maps data instead of exclusively the crowd-sourced content of Ingress.
And then, of course, there are the bugs. And I don't just mean Caterpie and Weedle (though there are an endless amount of those as well). Whether it's the servers causing the issues, or simply the software itself being flawed, the amount of issues you will run into with this game are far too high for a game with the Pokemon name attached to it to really be acceptable. Frequently, the game will entirely freeze and require you to completely exit and restart - including when you're trying to catch a Pokemon, which can lead to an incredibly frustrating scenario of finally finding a new Pokemon you were looking for only for the game to cheat you out of your capture. The GPS doesn't seem to work reliably, with the game often not updating your location until long after you've moved on past the Pokestop you wanted to catch on you way to somewhere and there are multiple graphical issues that range from being an outright glitch to simply a lack of attention to detail - such as a Pokemon ending up halfway off the top of the screen after the evolution animation completes.
In all, the game simply feels incomplete - because it obviously is. Even the version number is 0.29 - in other words, effectively an open beta, even if they won't call it one. It's disappointing that they felt that this was the version of the product that they should be openly releasing to the public and I'd like to hope that it doesn't indicate a lack of care and attention that will dog the support for the app through its life, but it isn't exactly a great start.
A key factor of the app's success is its inherent social currency - something a lot of businesses are capitalising on already
What they do get right, however, is the appeal of Augmented Reality in gaming in general - which is unquestionably the key point behind its success. The direct relation to your real world location may have its downsides, but it also leads to unique situations such as groups of players encountering a rare Pokemon in the same location - crossing over from the virtual realm into the real world so as to make it such that the Pokemon really is there, regardless of whether you can see it beyond the bezels of your phone. The augmented reality capture mechanic - showing the Pokemon appearing within the real world in front of you by using your phone's camera - has also led to an incredible virulence of the app by its so shareable nature. Who can resist seeing a Meowth dancing around Red Bull's F1 factory, or a Pikachu running around outside of 10 Downing Street as if it really is there - because to all those involved, it actually really is.
I will be the first to admit that I was extremely sceptical of Pokemon Go's promises when they were first made nearly a year ago with an extremely exaggerated trailer of what the game would deliver. With knowledge in hand of what Ingress was capable of and the (apparently correct) assumptions that the game wouldn't deviate far beyond it, it seemed like a reality train was headed straight for a collision course with most people's (also extremely exaggerated) expectations of what the game would be. Most surprisingly of all, that collision seems to have been avoided entirely, and the train has simply continued on to its next stop unburdened. The game doesn't deliver on the original impossible promises and I think it's safe to say that the most excited expectations of the game from last year haven't been met - but that key hook of wanting to catch 'em all, the augmented reality components and what social features exist within the framework of the game so far combine to deliver a gameplay experience that has not only got the attention of the Pokemon fans that have followed it through from announcement, but for the first time since the end of the 90s when Pokemon Red and Blue were released worldwide, the whole mainstream world's attention once again.
So despite its flaws, there's absolutely no question that Pokemon Go has achieved what it set out to do, and probably much more beyond it. Pokemon Sun and Moon will inevitably be much better games, but as far as a celebration of Pokemon in its 20th anniversary, it's hard to argue with Go as being the winner simply for reigniting that fire in the rest of the world by appealing both to nostalgia of a series most adults my age will have at least been aware of as young teenagers and children AND for tapping into a real thirst for games that break the walls between reality and the virtual world in an ever growing market for both Virtual and Augmented reality experiences. The sheer social nature of the game pushes its own virulence in the same way that we saw in school in the 90s when everybody brought their Gameboys together to trade and battle.
Now the real question becomes just how far can Niantic and The Pokemon Company really take this game and if they can both capitalise and deliver on the wider interest it has gathered in a way that really matters for the franchise. The answer to that, hopefully, will be yes, but perhaps it'll be worth seeing where we stand a year from now to truly assess the success of this experiment.